Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Book Review of A Place Of My Own by Michael Pollan

A Place of my Own by Michael Pollan is told by a guy who wants to build a small house. His reasons for doing so were his own but I found myself identifying very strongly with his thought process. He's good about putting his thoughts into words and his intentions are carefully planned and researched. He certainly put more forethought into his project that I put into my own. My plans have been rather scattered and most of my practical realizations have tended to come up during the building process itself rather than in planning. Pollan's goal was to create a sort of fortress of solitude; a small writing house separate from his regular house but located on the same property. He refers to the remarks of several different writers, scholars and historians to complement his thoughts. Gaston Blanelard sums up his idea of what he deems the chief benefits of a house: "..the house shelters day dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace." To those not inclined towards the arts, "dreaming" may be low on their list concerning the importance of houses. But there is a lot in this notion if you believe that "life is but a dream". Art requires a great deal of dreaming. No work of art could ever be created without the artist dreaming it and making it a tangible thing.
Pollan makes many interesting observations and references concerning the philosophy of pioneers of the designing process. Also included is a rich history of architecture. It was in this area that I found out how little I knew about the art of architecture. It's evolution is fueled by revolution and "out of the box" thinking. The most famous architects seemed more interested in the art of the profession than in the basic functions of the houses they created. Frank Lloyd Wright once made a comment that if a house's roof did not leak, the architect had not been creative enough. Wright's buildings were notorious for their leaky roofs, but he is revered as one of the greatest modern architects. In fact many of the greatest architectural achievements were never even built. The merits of these creations were judged upon their plans and models as art, not their practical use. For many "high minded" architects the arrival of occupants to a newly built structure spoiled their "dream".
Pollan makes it clear that he is a writer and has no business building a house, even a small one by himself. He decides to employ an architect (who lets him sit in on the drawing process) and a contractor with whom he works along side. It was interesting to see the natural animosity between designer and builder and Pollan's relationship to the both of them as client. It makes sense too that there would be some form of contempt especially on the side of the builder. The architect is continually referred to as "sitting in his ivory tower" far away from the practicalities of the construction process. There are almost always going to be aspects of a building plan that will not work in real space. It is up to the builder to make it work in practical terms. In my own designs there have been many variables that I did not know with certainty, so I would simply leave them open to interpretation until the actual building process. Under my own unique circumstances, as architect, client and builder, the conflict is always circular and I work it out however I need to. It's not so easy when these three components are separate entities. Such design discrepancies include measurements, joints and engineering requirements. It could be anything. It is up to the architect to formulate the entire design in which all measurements add up to mathematical truth in a way that looks harmonious. Practical truth is different however, and the job of making the actual structure work within the limits of all the given variables and codes can at times require a compromise. It also seems to be the case that many architects have little "hands-on" experience with building. Hence it is not uncommon to hear contractors refer to the architect's plans with contempt as "cartoons" as it is up to the builder to bridge the divide between theoretical plans and practicality.
In defense of the architect there seems to be little appreciation for the artistry involved in creating a building that looks good both inside and out in it's elemental surroundings. There is a mountain of theory and history that contributes to the aesthetic form and function of a house. In practical terms, the idea itself must be put to parchment so that a common visual reference can be made between the designer, builder and client.
The great amount of information concerning the art of architecture left me feeling quite clueless. I can't help but wonder,"what the hell is the thing that I am building?" Whatever it is and wherever it fits in terms of the art of architecture, will when it's finished, look like no other house. For something of a glorified shack I have done a great amount of drawing and sketching concerning it's development. Practicality plays a major part but is always second fiddle to the overall aesthetic form. I still don't know how my house will look when it's finished or how it will evolve but that is part of the fun and freedom in my own approach as architect, contractor and owner.
I really enjoyed reading A Place of my Own. It is well written and thoughtful. It encompasses a great deal of the building process without reading like a "how-to" manual. Even though it is a very small house lacking many of the modern conveniences of a conventional home, Pollan presents a well rounded account of building that is interesting and entertaining. The house he creates is uniquely his own.

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